“Oh, I’m okay, I guess. Could be worse.”
Kurt looked at me with sincere deep blue eyes. We sat miles away from each other, relying on an online video app to bring us closer than was safe to be in person. The first pandemic in our lifetimes, all citizens of our small planet shared a catastrophe that has killed too many.
As a trained clinical psychologist, I have led in-person client therapy for decades, but when we were all ordered to remain home, members needed to stay in touch with me and with each other.
Kurt’s group consists of seven members, ages 33 to 74, my co-leader, and me. We joined from miles away on “Zoom,” a video program that brings participants together safely from a distance.
Kurt, now 45, entered therapy at 35 because he was lonely. He has dated many, coupled with no one. Psychological testing indicated anxiety and mild clinical depression.
We treated him without medication through an affordable combination of individual and group therapy. Kurt hungered to meet a woman he could cherish but was reticent to do the online dating ads that are in frequent use. I invited Kurt to join a therapy group to deepen interpersonal skills. Governmental regulations for social distancing ruled it unwise to meet in persons.
I took the group online, rather than disband it. Kurt was relieved to share unburden himself about his loneliness. Group mates offered to help him write an ad for a singles website.
“Nope. Not yet, but if I get a bit more confident, I will take you up on your offer,” Kurt said.
“Kurt, come on and try it," Mark replied, for the entire group. “We just want you to be happy. You are a trusted teacher, a great basketball player, and a sincere man. You even love to cook, and you look preppy. Just how lucky could a woman get?”
I turned to Kurt. "What is your reaction to Mark? He is speaking for the group," I asked.
Kurt nodded to me from our online relationships. One hundred miles separated us.
“Somehow, the pandemic reminds me of just how lonely I am," Kurt said. "Running alone got old weeks ago, and loneliness feels hard to manage, but the way to meet someone is in person, not on the internet." He looked resolute.
Marnie met a man through an ad on a dating site.
“How about submitting to The League?" Marnie knew that Kurt joined a website that appealed to sophisticated single adults. “I find J-Date a surprisingly good way to meet Jewish men. I don’t need to marry them to enjoy knowing them."
My co-leader checked in. “We have all have been at home more in the last two months than in the last two years. After 12 weeks of pandemic psychotherapy appointments, you have settled into a familiar, if lonely, routine. Each single client I have spoken with has volunteered that it feels hard to be alone so much of the time and that emailing just doesn't cut it."
We Are Not Meant to be Alone
Experts on intimacy agree that loneliness is dangerous. It can foster cognitive decline, speed up dementia, increase blood pressure, weaken immune functionality, and increase inflammation, which can cause earlier deaths.
From birth, humans are completely dependent on each other for survival. By adulthood, our brain goes into a state of alertness during periods of deep loneliness.
“We are not meant to be alone," concluded international researchers, studying how forced isolation in the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting people. "That state of deep loneliness creates wear and tear on our bodies. We share a biological trigger, much like hunger and thirst, which motivates us to reconnect with others."
To Consider: The American Association for Retired Persons reports that more than 8 million Americans, ages 50 and older, are affected by isolation and that more than a quarter of all Americans live alone.
To Do: How can we help humans get to other humans? Solutions sound simple but are tricky to execute if someone already feels depressed and lonely. Here are three simple ways to connect:
- Email or text friends and family daily to share something special. Include a silly video, a meaningful article, or a recent photo.
- Remember the phone by setting up a time to check in to see how folks are doing.
- Get on social media or, if the person is not fluent in social media access, send cards and notes using the old-fashioned, but effective means to stay in touch.
ED. NOTE: Dr. Coche practices clinical psychology in Stone Harbor and Philadelphia. She invites responses through her website, www.cochecenter.com.